Marine Staff Sgt. Aaron White was killed in a helicopter crash on May 19, 2003, in Iraq. Here is an excerpt from his last letter home to his wife, Michele, and his baby daughter, Brianna.
"What keeps me up at night is thinking you may never know what you mean to me. ... If I don't come home, please tell Brianna that her daddy loves her more than life. ... Brianna, it breaks my heart to have to miss your first birthday. I hope that you will forgive me. ... I fall asleep every night with visions of you and your mommy in my head, reminding me of all I have been blessed with. I will be with you every day, if not in body, then in spirit. I love you more than my words could ever say."
Aaron was killed two days after Brianna turned 1. When an American in a military uniform is killed his or her family receives a one-time death gratuity of $12,000. The surviving family also may qualify for the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP), which is paid up to age 62 or until the spouse remarries. The SBP benefit amounts to 55 percent of the soldier's retirement pay, pay that is already so low it qualifies many military families for food stamps.
These "benefits" are contingent on fulfilling many petty regulations. Michele did not qualify for the SBP because Aaron was in the Marine Corps just under 10 years. Several further benefits, such as the income-based Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC), may pay out about $800 per month and $200 per child, depending on the case. Michele did not qualify because of several arcane technicalities. Michele and Brianna's medical benefits will end three years from the date of Aaron's death. But Michele did receive some modest insurance compensation, because Aaron paid for coverage out of his meager salary.
A just-released study by the Rand Corp. found that the families of civilians killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, received on average $3.1 million in government and charitable compensation. The families of the firefighters and cops who died received even more; their average compensation was $4.2 million.
Our soldiers are being killed on a daily basis, but most of us seem to feel little personal connection with them. If we did, their widows and families would be better compensated. Our idea of "supporting the troops" is to stick magnetic yellow ribbons on our cars.
I know. I never served in the military, and before my son unexpectedly enlisted in the Marines, and then went to war in the Middle East for 11 months, I looked at our military as made up of people who had little to do with me.
Let's strip away our yellow-ribbon sentimentality for a moment and admit the truth: We treat our military like second-class citizens. I'm glad the Sept. 11 families were generously compensated, but it's time to ask why the family of someone who has done no more for his country than show up at a stock trading office on the wrong day should receive hundreds of times as much compensation as the family of a soldier who volunteered to leave his wife and child to defend the rest of us.
Most of the dead from our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are being buried in small towns and in the blue-collar or middle- and lower-middle-class sections of our cities. Our politicians seem better able to identify with the needs of stock traders' widows (not to mention the businesses and airlines that were also generously compensated) than with the needs of the families of our soldiers. This is a scandal.
In his second-to-last letter home Aaron wrote: "Believe me I am not having a good time here. This is an ugly hasty land. I hope (our) people appreciate the blood we are to spill." Judging by how we are taking care of his widow and daughter, apparently the answer is that we do not.
-- Frank Schaeffer's latest book is "Voices From the Front: Letters Home From America's Military Family." He can be contacted at www.frankschaeffer.com.